For several years I have encountered a bright flavor in Middle Eastern food — in fattoush salad and in various breads at the Syrian grocery store. The oregano, thyme, and sesame seeds were recognizable but there was a distinct ingredient I had trouble placing. The ingredient turned out to be sumac in a spice mix called zaatar. Zaatar is a mix of herbs along with a bit of salt and sesame seed. The mix can get tossed into olive oil and brushed on flat bread; you can also dip warm bread into olive oil and then into zaatar. The possibilities are endless for this great spice mix.
Just as you go through Mexico and experience many different taco or mole flavors, the same is true with zaatar. There are regional differences for Zaatar and families often have their secret recipes. The common denominator is the presence of a bit of salt, sesame seed, and oregano. Most combinations will also have sumac and thyme. In homemade zaatar, you may find the dried white blossom of the thyme plant.
Zaatar is available commercially but in making it yourself, you can have great fun in mixing your own and developing just the right mix for your palate. I use sumac in abundance because of its antioxidant properties — it is a delicious way to protect your well being. The recipe I used is based on one from About.com. I chose the recipe for the large proportion of sumac. As you develop your own recipe, consider that sumac is tart and lemony. You may need to start with smaller portions of sumac and build up to larger amounts.
Mix all of the ingredients in a food processor, but do not over-mix it. You want the sesame seeds to still be recognizable. A mortar and pestle will work fine too. Store the zaatar in a glass container with a tight lid. Keep the container in a cool dark place and the freshness will last for several months.
Use the freshest ingredients you can find. Once I began buying seasonings at a Syrian grocery I realized how worn out the seasonings in my pantry were. Over a couple of months the old seasonings got replaced and now I keep an eye on freshness. The worn out herbs and spices get sprinkled on the compost pile. The secret is to figure out how much of any herb or spice you use in a six-month period of time and buy just that amount. Freshness is a critical factor if you are going to get the optimum punch from your zaatar.
Just for fun: In some cultures zaatar is believed to enhance brain function. On the morning of a test school children are given zaatar for this reason. Try it out. Zaatar may be your spicy key to peak mental performance. All I can vouch for personally is that zaatar is an attention-getting bright flavor.
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